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How Are Yankees Staying in Thick of the Playoff Race with Gutted Roster?

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How Are Yankees Staying in Thick of the Playoff Race with Gutted Roster?
USA TODAY Sports

The New York Yankees have had a long, strange trip through the 2014 season.

Think back to the All-Star break: Whichever metaphor you prefer—underwater, sinking, stuck in the mud—they had become a representation of the overspending, injured, mediocre ballclub in the 21st century. Having lost 10 of their final 16 heading into the break, they were eyeing baseball's second half at 47-47 with just one of their five Opening Day starters remaining healthy—their 39-year-old, too. Pitching had never been the problem, either.

The front office appeared caught between haplessly believing in this 2014 team and more rationally becoming sellers given a lost cause. The non-waiver trade deadline came and went last Thursday, and the Yanks didn't come away with their typical marquee haul of playoff-pushers. 

Seemingly, they hadn't come away with enough to even keep their playoff hopes alive.

Oakland got Jon Lester. Detroit ended up with David Price. From the scrapheap of pitchers left to the team with few marketable assets, however, New York took a chance on Brandon McCarthy, 3-10 with a 5.01 ERA for Arizona, and then decided to save Chris Capuano from obscurity; he'd gone 1-1, made no starts and compiled a 4.55 in 31.2 innings before Boston had released him. 

Last week, we took a look at the Yankees' truest saving grace this season: the pitching staff. For all the big-name winter signings, it has been—and continues to be, as we've seen this week—the underdog pitchers who have not only kept New York from falling completely out of the race, but have kept them in the hunt.

Because, just as forcefully, the offense has been the truest kryptonite of all.

Cashman and Co. dove into the cellar and grabbed Chase Headley, who had been batting .229 with seven home runs for lowly San Diego. Then their final two moves prompted the New York Post's Ken Davidoff to try to capture the feeling in a rather blunt headline the night of July 31: "Stephen Drew? Martin Prado? How Desperate are the Yankees?"

Mike Stobe/Getty Images
Yankees GM Brian Cashman

Two questions justifiably floated around: What was general manager Brian Cashman thinking? And why weren't the Yankees more aggressive on the offensive front? But then the Yankees remained afloat.

They took two of three in Fenway this weekend while scoring 17 runs; however, they still had a long flight home for their four-game set with World Series-caliber Detroit and the potential to open the homestand by signifying the beginning of the end: the middling ballclub on unstable footing in a wildly knotted wild-card race and—at that point—looking at a five-game deficit in the AL East.

After all, the first three games would see New York face the previous three AL Cy Young winners, and in the fourth they'd take their hacks against a 13-game winner. 

But they remained afloat again. Detroit's bruiser brigade of Max Scherzer, David Price, Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello stormed the Bronx, but the Yankees scratched out two wins from the initial three-game gauntlet before stealing the finale Thursday, 1-0, despite stranding 11 baserunners

Now, with a little over seven weeks separating the Yankees from October, they find themselves at 60-54, six games above .500 for just the third time this season; seven games up would be the season's high-water mark.

Standings
AL East GB Wild Card GB
Baltimore (65-49) Los Angeles (67-47) +6.5
New York (60-54) 5.0 Kansas City (60-53)
Toronto (61-55) 5.0 New York (60-54) 0.5
Tampa Bay (55-59) 10.0 Seattle (60-54) 0.5
Boston (50-64) 15.0 Toronto (61-55) 0.5

MLB.com

They've won 13 of their last 20 since the break. They're only a half-game back—one in the loss column—of the second wild-card spot. With a thinned-out, drastically different rotation, a gutted roster and all, here they are—right in the thick of the playoff race.

And there's more than pure luck and league-wide feebleness behind New York's sudden surge after the recent patchwork fixes on offense. It's not that they're suddenly pouring on the runs; but they seem to have found a groove where they're hitting just enough to get by.

This week, we'll examine some larger trends behind their offense—and success—since emerging from mid-July to, perhaps, find their niche as the pinstriped underdogs. 

 

The Story of the Offense

Al Bello/Getty Images

A simplistic approach might claim externalities are the root: That the division, and really the majority of the AL, has been playing just poorly enough for the Yankees to hang around. That, this week, Detroit's offense—held to one run Monday and Wednesday and shut out Thursday—just didn't show up. That the Yankees, previously slumping at the plate, have gotten hot. 

While there's some validity to each of those points, let's examine the Yankees more specifically.

 

Comparing the Numbers Pre- and Post-All-Star Break

First, take a look at the Yankees' numbers in some major offensive categories after baseball's first half. If the statistics alone don't jump out at you, notice where they ranked among all 30 MLB teams in mid-July.

Perhaps the low marks in RBI and slugging aren't shocking since the Yankees blatantly failed to hit the long ball and score runs in the first 94 games. But contemplate the historical context of their early-2014 struggles, held up to every Yankees' first-half output since 1914:

2014 Yankees Offense, Rankings (1st Half)
BA OBP SLG HR RBI ISO
Yankees .252 .314 .381 81 351 .129
MLB Ranking (among 30 teams) 15th 19th 20th 17th 24th 21st
101-Year NYY Ranking (since 1914) 83rd 92nd 78th 41st 66th 76th

Baseball-Reference; FanGraphs

To defend their first three-and-a-half months as a bit of bad luck and underperformance sorely misses that New York posted its 10th-worst OBP and 19th-lowest team average in the last 101 years.

In the 20 games since the break, the Yankees have gone 13-7. Eighteen of those have been decided by two runs or fewer, including a franchise-record 16 straight—the longest streak in MLB since 1975.

So the Yankees certainly have scraped by, but they've also noticeably improved, owning places in the top half in MLB in each of the same categories since mid-July:

2014 Yankees Offense, Rankings (Post-All-Star Break)
BA OBP SLG HR RBI ISO
Yankees .254 .318 .410 24 79 .156
MLB Rankings (among 30 teams) 14th 12th 6th 1st 7th 3rd

FanGraphs

They jumped 18 spots in ISO for third in the bigs, 17 spots in RBI to place them seventh, 14 in slugging to reach sixth and 16 in homers to top all of baseball since the break.

We can also expand our vision using advanced stats and metrics. From the first-half splits, FanGraphs tells us the Yankees were fifth-to-last in Wins Above Replacement, 20th in weighted runs created-plus (weighted offensive production adjusted to park and league) and 19th in weighted on-base percentage (weighted overall offensive value).

More telling for the dearth in power, the Yankees demonstrated a below-average ability to hit fly balls (FB%) or go yard on the fly balls they were hitting (HR/FB%), sitting in the bottom 11 of MLB in both: 

2014 Yankees Offensive Advanced Stats (1st Half)
fWAR wRC+ wOBA FB% HR/FB%
Yankees 7.1 92 .309 33.7 9.3
MLB Ranking (among 30 teams) 26th 20th 19th 20th 21st

FanGraphs

But compare those numbers and rankings in the period since July 15:

2014 Yankees Offensive Advanced Stats (Post-All-Star Break)
fWAR wRC+ wOBA FB% HR/FB%
Yankees 2.4 101 .322 35.8 12.3
MLB Ranking (among 30 teams) 13th 8th 7th 9th 3rd

FanGraphs

Some quick math to highlight the picture: This means that, during their sample size since the break (20 games)—which is roughly 21 percent of the games played from April-July—the Yankees have accumulated over one-third of their first-half WAR.

They've gone from 19th or worse in each category before the Midsummer Classic to 13th or better over the time since then—including the top eight in wRC+, wOBA and HR/FB rate. 

 

Slumps Give Way, New Acquisitions Assisting

Winslow Townson/Associated Press
New Yankee Martin Prado has helped to pick up the slack in right field.

Due to injury and underperformance, as alluded to earlier, some of the offseason spending spree materialized into a largely failed experiment. We'll key in on some primary role players in that storyline here.

Beginning with the 94 games before the break, here are six primary Yankees to discuss. The three principal Yankees omitted are: Derek Jeter (.272, 25 RBI, 6 SB in the first half), Brett Gardner (.279, 9 HR, 15 SB, 118 wRC+, 2.4 WAR)  and Jacoby Ellsbury (.282, 42 RBI, 24 SB, 2.0 WAR).

To keep the offensive picture simple, below are their 2014 first-half slash lines, wRC+ and wOBA next to their respective career averages in the first half:

Slumping Hitters Pre-All-Star Break, Career 1st-Half Context
G BA/OBP/SLG Career wRC+ Career wOBA Career
Kelly Johnson 72 .214/.299/.380 .249/.336/.431 88 106 .303 337
Carlos Beltran 61 .216/.271/.401 .279/.359/.499 80 125 .291 .291
Alfonso Soriano 67 .221/.244/.367 .275/.322/.499 62 111 .265 .349
Brian McCann 85 .239/.294/.377 .282/.355/.476 85 121 .298 .358
Brian Roberts 82 .241/.306/.376 .279/.350/.417 89 104 .304 .337
Mark Teixeira 73 .241/.341/.464 .264/.359/.500 122 124 .352 .368

FanGraphs

Except for Mark Teixeira, who put up respectable numbers coming off a lost season in 2013, no one was safe from struggling.

Most striking: Carlos Beltran saw the biggest dip from his career first-half average to his 2014 number (.279 to .216), and Alfonso Soriano, released on July 14, put up the largest difference in wRC+ (111 to 62) and wOBA (.349 to .265); 

Cashman had given up on Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts, too, as a matter of fact, sending the former to Boston for Stephen Drew and cash and designating the latter for assignment while acquiring Martin Prado for minor leaguer Peter O'Brien.

Here's how the new group of six has fared since the second half kicked off, with the three new Yankees' numbers shown since joining New York:

Recovery Post-All-Star Break, with Acquisitions
G Notable NUmbers
Carlos Beltran 20 .351/.410/.554, 4 HR, 3 2B, 12 RBI, 169 wRC+, .420 wOBA
Brian McCann 17 3 HR, 3 2B, 11 RBI, 96 wRC+
Mark Teixeira 11 2 HR, 7 BB
Chase Headley 16 .267/.333/.417, 2 HR, 3 2B, 110 wRC+
Martin Prado 7 1 HR, 1 2B
Stephen Drew 7 3 2B, 6 RBI

FanGraphs

It helps that a few struggling Yankees have caught fire or turned things around early on—most notably, Beltran and McCann, the second of whom has reached base safely in 24 of his last 27 games and homered in two straight games this week. But Cashman was also able to catch the proverbial lightning in a bottle with Headley, Drew and Prado, who have all made major impacts already.

Headley, who hit seven homers in 77 games for the Padres, has already hit two in 16 games for New York. In his first game in the Bronx, July 23, he had the walk-off single in the bottom of the 14th. He has a 110 OPS+ since switching leagues—not to mention the Gold Glove-caliber work he has done at third (see: gems in Boston this past weekend).

Drew has been an excellent defensive substitution as well and has already pitched in to the timely hitting of late: He had 11 RBI in 39 games for Boston but already has six in seven games for the Yanks; on Thursday, he had the game-winning RBI double in the fourth inning of an eventual 1-0 victory.

Prado has been a much-needed fill-in for Ichiro out in right field. The veteran with over 4,000 hits across two professional leagues, was batting .297 in the first half, but in the 18 games since, he is slumping at .171 with 10 strikeouts.

 

Is it Sustainable?

Winslow Townson/Associated Press

The main question is whether the Yankees can keep this up through the next two-and-a-half weeks and enter the month of September with a shot to contend.

Perhaps the better question asks: Are there any trends that would say this recent run of success has been the fluke—and not the sign of the season turning around?

We can look at a few final advanced stats and figures to glimpse the underlying picture of the offense, namely those related to plate discipline and patience and those that seek to find a middle ground between good and bad luck when bat meets ball.

By considering luck and other factors, BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is a great measure for qualifying more definitive claims of success or failure at the plate. Simply put, how many balls in play go for hits? As FanGraphs notes: "Three main factors influence BABIP and all three of those factors tell us something important about that player’s [or team's] overall stat line. Those factors are defense, luck, and talent level."

The first is comparable to the difference between ERA and FIP (fielding independent pitching), the second regards the randomness of bloop hits, broken bats, etc. and the third concerns the hitter, since some flat-out hit the ball harder or sharper than others. With BABIP evening out over time, league average should be right around .300.

You'll notice the Yankees were not only sub-.300 in the first half, but they've been substantially below that since the break, ranking in the bottom 10 in MLB for each split.

The other stats in this table help to paint the "bad luck"—or "doing the best they can"—picture. Each one is a batting rate that helps illustrate how patient the team is at the dish, and how adept at making contact the hitters are when they swing.

O-Swing tells us the percentage of pitches swung at outside the zone (bad pitches, or ones where they're fooled or overaggressive), O-Contact and Z-Contact give the percentage of contact on balls swung at outside or inside the zone, Contact is the overall percentage of contact on swings and SwStr is the percentage of pitches swung at and missed.

2014 Yankees BABIP, Plate Discipline
BABIP O-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% SwStr%
1st Half .291 29.1 71.6 90.4 83.7 7.2
MLB Ranking 21st 9th 2nd 2nd 1st 1st
2nd Half .278 29.4 71.9 92.7 85.0 6.5
MLB Ranking 25th 2nd 4th 1st 1st 1st

FanGraphs

You'll notice that the Yanks have been in the top 10 in each stat for both half-season splits, and most significantly, they've swung and missed at the fewest pitches in baseball, made contact on the most and made the most or second-most contact on ones in the zone. 

To show how well New York is doing with discipline and contact, here are its rankings among each Yankees team since 2002, the first year for which FanGraphs has this data:

2014 Yankees Plate Discipline, Context (since 2002)
BABIP O-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% SwStr%
2014 .289 29.2 71.6 90.8 83.9 7.1
13-Year Ranking 11th 11th 1st 1st 1st 3rd

FanGraphs

So if you're looking for whether this recent run is sustainable, you may not find the answer you're looking for. But if you're searching for a glimmer of hope that it's possible, you're looking right at it.

Despite one of the league's wort BABIPs, and their third-worst in the last 13 years, they seem to be doing everything they can to put the ball in play. 

You might be wondering, doesn't that mean they could be putting too many balls in play? But glance again at their splits for O-Swing: Prior to the break they swung at the ninth-smallest percentage of pitches out of the zone, and since the break, they've swung at the fewest.

They're not putting too many balls in play; they just seem to be finally reaping some of the benefits of doing so, as well as making better contact—as shown through their improved slugging percentage, ISO, fly-ball rate and HR/FB rate. Recall that in the second half, the Yankees have belted roughly a third of their first-half homer total in only 21 percent of the total games.

The negative outlook for keeping this streak up lies in a different area: strikeout rate, walk rate and walk-to-strikeout (BB/K) ratio, where the Yankees are below-average in each by FanGraphs' accounts in 2014.

For more context, check out how this season's rates line up against all 101 seasons since 1914:

2014 Yankees Strikeout and Walk Rates, Context (since 1914)
K% BB% BB/K
"Excellent" 10.0 15.0 1.5
"Average" 18.5 8.5 0.46
"Poor" 25.0 5.5 0.22
2014 18.3 7.7 0.42
101-Year Ranking 98th 93rd 99th

FanGraphs

To summarize, in the last 101 years, the 2014 Yankees have struck out at the fourth-highest rate, walked at the ninth-lowest clip and posted the third-worst ratio.

 

What's Next?

Winslow Townson/Associated Press

As we look ahead to the potential of the postseason, consider what the Detroit series may have proven: The Yankees simply have to get there.

By October, if they get there, they definitely won't have CC Sabathia or Ivan Nova, and they may have Michael Pineda and Masahiro Tanaka back. 

But they just showed they can go up against arguably the best, or second-best, starting rotation in baseball (Oakland would be the other) and pull off three wins in four games. The series that should have exposed their offensive deficiencies, and that could've jumpstarted the end of their season, proved their mettle instead.

McCarthy won his fourth start in five games as a Yankee, and he hardly had his best stuff, having thrown 69 pitches through three innings. Hiroki Kuroda started the only loss of the series, allowing three runs on six hits in seven innings. Capuano surrendered five hits and one walk and struck out eight in 6.2 innings, while Headley and McCann both touched up Verlander. Shane Greene tossed eight innings of shutout, five-hit ball in his third win. 

Tony Dejak/Associated Press/Associated Press
Brandon McCarthy is 4-0 with a 2.08 since joining New York.

This season has also shown that the Yankees just need to reach the seventh inning and pass the baton, where they have one of—if not the—most dominant bullpens in MLB. David Robertson, Dellin Betances, Adam Warren and Shawn Kelley are all having career years; even new help Esmil Rogers has allowed just one hit, walked one and struck out five in his first four innings of relief for New York. 

And it's not just about the renaissance of the staff and bats occurring—it's where it has largely taken place. Prior to the midway point, the Yankees had gone just 18-23 at the Stadium, their typical safe haven. Since flipping the page for the second half, they've begun 10-4 at home.

We'll have to see how the next few weeks play out to determine the overall confidence level. To close out the penultimate month of baseball, New York hosts the sub-.500 Indians before visiting the hot Orioles and division-rival Rays, returning home for six games against Houston (47-68) and the White Sox (55-61) and then hitting the road for seven in Kansas City (makeup game), Detroit and Toronto.

Coming out of the break, FanGraphs had given them just an 11.4 percent chance of making the postseason. That number heading into Friday's series with Cleveland? A cool 25.4 percent.

And if the Yankees, despite $500 million spent this winter, have suddenly become the face of the grit-and-grind, underdog role, we can be content. That's better than the initial characterization of this article—the overspending, injured, mediocre one.

And all the better if the Bombers can embrace the new image.

Said Brandon McCarthy after his victory Monday night, per the New York Post's Larry Brooks:

I knew going into the game that it was going to be a challenge for me, which I accepted, and we know that it’s a great challenge who we’re up against this series. To that extent, we’re taking it personally. When this series is over, we want to be the story.

So is it possible the Yankees' eyes are set on October, with a pep in their step now that the series is over?

"This is pennant-race baseball," McCarthy added, "you just have to keep grinding.”

 

 

Statistics current through game action on August 7, 2014 and courtesy of Baseball-ReferenceFanGraphs and ESPN.com unless otherwise noted.

Peter F. Richman is a Yankees featured columnist and expert, and a Bleacher Report copy editor. For more NYY opinions, discussion, debate and analysis, feel free to reach out via Twitter:  

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